Category Archives: Disciplining the City

From Community Action to Community Policing: The Ford Foundation and the Urban Crisis, 1960-1975

By Sam Collings-Wells

On July 16, 1970, McGeorge Bundy circulated a letter to various US Senators informing them of the Ford Foundation’s “major new program to help strengthen and modernize the exercise of police function in urban areas.”[i] He was referring to the establishment of the Police Foundation, an independent organization which was allocated an enormous $30 million for action-orientated research into new policing strategies and technologies.[ii] Internal program documents repeatedly stressed that the principal purpose of this new entity was to stimulate “change in police function,” not by funding the purchase of additional hardware but instead by “bringing the police closer to the community” and fostering “mutual cooperation between police officers and community residents.”[iii]

The Ford Foundation’s leap into the realm of community policing during the early 1970s has largely been neglected by historians. This is surprising, particularly given that the organization’s role in pioneering the community-based antipoverty strategies of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty has been well documented. Scholars from Alice O’Connor to Joshua Zeitz have demonstrated how the urban community action experiments pioneered by Ford during the early 1960s formed the basis of the “maximum feasible participation” clause of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act.[iv] Yet in these works the Ford Foundation appears only briefly, surfacing as the progenitor of the controversial Community Action Agencies before largely disappearing from view.

This lack of attention to the Ford Foundation’s later efforts in the realm of law enforcement has obscured its role in fraught city politics of the 1960s. Keeping our focus on the organization throughout the decade allows us to track the evolution of its urban policies, which shifted from an antipoverty strategy of “community action” to a law-and-order based program of “community policing.” Despite their obvious differences, these two projects shared a core belief in the efficacy of operating at the level of the “community.” In fact, the Police Foundation’s attempts to better integrate law enforcement into the fabric of local neighborhoods drew on the antipoverty strategies Ford had pioneered earlier in the decade. And crucially, uncovering these connective tissues serves to buttress Elizabeth Hinton’s recent thesis that the transition from War on Poverty to the War on Crime was less a decisive rupture than an organic evolution.[v]

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New Haven Government Center, New Haven, Connecticut. Model A. Façades facing New Haven Green. Street level view, Rudolph Paul, 1968, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Tackling the urban crisis at the level of the community was central to the Ford Foundation’s antipoverty efforts early in the decade. Beginning in 1960, the Foundation’s “Gray Areas” program initiated a series of grants to community corporations in five cities—Boston, Philadelphia, Oakland, New Haven and Washington D.C—which were tasked with formulating an integrated response to inner-city deprivation.[vi] What distinguished this approach from previous antipoverty efforts was its emphasis on engaging poor residents in the formulation of solutions. While in practice the program achieved differing levels of participation, leveraging community associations to democratize the planning and provision of social services remained its core innovation. Local schools often served as the locus of this activity, keeping open their doors after-hours and on weekends for adult education, remedial reading, and various “community building” exercises.[vii]

Other Ford Foundation grants also sought to mobilize the community in the service of urban renewal. The most notable of these was that made to Mobilization for Youth (MFY), an agency located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side which had begun as a traditional anti-delinquency program carried out by a local settlement house tackling gang violence. After receiving Foundation funding in 1960—and under the influence of sociologists such as Leonard Cottrell, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin—MFY was gradually nudged in the direction of greater local participation; by 1963 it had stopped working with existing neighborhood organizations and begun recruiting unaffiliated poor individuals from the Lower East Side.[viii] It was this aspect of the program which would be imported into Lyndon Johnson’s Economic Opportunity Act the following year, Title II of which mandated the “maximum feasible participation” of the poor.

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War on Poverty Baltimore Community Action Agency, Thomas J. O’Halloran, May 28, 1965, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Yet as both the MFY experiment and LBJ’s War on Poverty demonstrated, mobilising the poor in this way could hardly occur without generating controversy—particularly when the fraught issues of housing, jobs, and poverty interacted with the cresting civil rights movement in the North. By the middle of the decade MFY’s organizers were coordinating a series of rent strikes, boycotts, and protests, none of which endeared the organisation to established local power structures. Soon MFY found itself fighting off charges of communist infiltration and inciting riots.[ix] Similar tensions arose within the Gray Areas program, with communities of color utilizing the new structures it had put in place to press their complaints against city hall. This mirrored the arc of Johnson’s War on Poverty, where local Community Action Agencies (CAAs) clashed with mayors and local police departments. As maximum feasible participation soured into “maximum feasible misunderstanding,” many at the Ford Foundation became embarrassed by their trail-blazing role in the most contentious aspect of Johnson’s War on Poverty.[x]

This backlash to Johnson’s Community Action Agencies ensured that by the time McGeorge Bundy arrived at the Ford Foundation as president in 1966, the organization was already quietly abandoning the more radical aspects of the “community action” approach. As signaled by its pioneering use of Community Development Corporations (CDCs) in Robert Kennedy’s Bedford-Stuyvesant regeneration project, the Foundation began to focus less on the process of community participation and more on the end-goal of attracting business, capital and middle-class residents back to deprived neighborhoods—a precursor to the neoliberalization of urban governance during the late-1970s and 80s.[xi] Despite this shift, however, the Foundation did not banish the participatory impulse of the earlier community action approach altogether. Instead, by the late 1960s it had migrated into the Ford Foundation’s new emphasis on law enforcement—an emphasis which by this time was dovetailing with broader national political shifts.

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Nixon’s the one!“, poster, 1968, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

With Richard Nixon elected in 1968 by capitalizing on widespread concerns over “law and order,” policing appeared to offer the Foundation a powerful, non-controversial avenue for involvement in the urban crisis.[xii] Instead of tackling the root of unrest through community-based antipoverty programs, the Foundation would now focus on controlling the symptom of urban malaise through improved policing strategies. Yet in making this transition the Ford Foundation hardly acted as the President’s cheerleader. Rather, it sought to inject what they saw as a much-needed grassroots emphasis into Nixon’s “top-down” war on crime. This was reflected in the stated ambition of the Police Foundation, which hoped to “[c]ontribute significantly to the movement away from the centralized and quasi-military models of patrol operations to more flexible neighbourhood based patrol operations which are more responsive to varying community needs and values.”[xiii]

The main function of the Police Foundation was to provide financial assistance for a number of (primarily urban) police departments to initiate local experiments and demonstration projects. These were aimed at redefining law enforcement functions, altering the way in which effective policing was assessed by focusing more closely on police-community relations.[xiv] In Cincinnati, for instance, a major impact grant funded an experiment that placed small police teams permanently in specific neighborhoods. Known as community sector team policing (or ComSec), this approach sought to encourage “mutual cooperation between police officers and residents,” with the ultimate aim of “controlling crime by increasing community cooperation.” Similar experiments were undertaken in New York City, Dallas, Kansas City and Sacramento.[xv]

Community action had thus evolved into a form of community policing, which sought to control urban unrest by stitching structures of surveillance into the social life of the neighborhood itself. The ComSec program not only encouraged private citizens to involve themselves in crime prevention by reporting it to trusted officers, but actually sought to blur the distinction between police and community by instructing officers to work in plain clothes and interact regularly with the neighborhood. And as a report on the Dallas Police Department’s program noted, this would help identify the “basic needs of the community” through “restructuring police services to respond to those needs.”[xvi] This reached its apotheosis in Dayton, Ohio, where the Foundation funded the establishment of a Joint Task Force which paired both citizens and police officers together to work towards to tackling civil disorders, prostitution, and drug abuse. Its explicit purpose was “to involve citizens in police policymaking.”[xvii]

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Ford Foundation Headquarters atrium, New York, New York, Carol M. Highsmith, between 1980 and 2006, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Ford Foundation was still seeking to develop communities, then, but the focus of this effort shifted. Rather than building a community around the school-house—as had occurred during the Gray Areas program—the Foundation now sought to construct one around the police station. The rhetoric and practices of “community self-help” and “grassroots empowerment” were co-opted to accommodate shifting political currents, inflecting these shifts in turn with its own peculiar emphasis on local participation. By the 1970s, one strand of this had led to the market-orientated emphasis of Community Development Corporations; the other to the law-enforcement community work of the Police Foundation.

Together, these two strands worked reciprocally to pave the way for the neoliberalization of urban governance during the 1980s. They did so by helping to replace a liberal strategy of federal spending linked to community mobilisation with one focused on attracting business investment–and more effectively policing disordered urban spaces that remained. A constant throughout these shifts was the analytical base-unit of the urban “community.” The difference was that these communities were not only starved of external assistance by the retrenchment of the welfare state, but also found themselves subject to efforts to direct their own internal resources towards surveillance and coercion rather than empowerment and mobilization.

ProfileSam Collings-Wells is a first year PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge. His research examines the historical intersections between community development, modernization, and policing in cities around the world. Twitter: @Sam_cw_

Featured image (at top): Woolworth store on 14th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., an area affected by the 1968 riots, November 6, 1972, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress 


[i] Letter from McGeorge Bundy to Mike Mansfield, (July 16, 1970), Ford Foundation Archives (FF), Office Files of McGeorge Bundy [OFMB], Series II: Subject Files, FA617, Box 17, Rockefeller Archive Center (RAC), Sleepy Hollow, New York, p. 1.

[ii] Ford Foundation, Annual Report 1970, (New York: Ford Foundation, 1970), pp. 8-9.

[iii] National Affairs, “Police Foundation: Progress Report,” (1973), Catalogued Reports, Reports 1-3254 (FA739A), Box 105, Report no. 002445, p. 6.

[iv] Robert Halpern, Rebuilding the Inner City: A History of Neighborhood Initiatives to Address Poverty in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995); Joshua Zeitz, Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House (New York: Viking, 2018). See also Alyosha Goldstein, Poverty in Common: The Politics of Community Action during the American Century (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012).

[v] Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[vi] Ananya Roy, Emma Shaw Crane, and Stuart Schrader, “Gray Areas: The War on Poverty at Home and Abroad,” in Roy and Crane, eds., Territories of Poverty: Rethinking North and South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015).

[vii] Alice O’Connor, “Community Action, Urban Reform, and the Fight against Poverty: The Ford Foundation’s Gray Areas Program,” Journal of Urban History, Vol. 22, No. 5 (July 1996), pp. 586-625.

[viii] Goldstein, Poverty in Common, pp. 123-124.

[ix] Tamar W. Carroll, Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

[x] Daniel P. Moynihan, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty (New York: The Free Press, 1969).

[xi] Ferguson, Top-Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); Tom Adam Davies, “Black Power in Action: The Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, Robert F. Kennedy, and the Politics of the Urban Crisis,” Journal of American History, Vol. 100, No. 3, (December 2013), pp. 736-760.

[xii] Lawrence O’Donnell, Playing With Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics (New York: Penguin Press, 2017).

[xiii] “Police Foundation: Progress Report,” p.16.

[xiv] The Ford Foundation, A More Effective Arm: A Report on a Police Development Fund, Newly Established by the Ford Foundation (New York: The Ford Foundation, 1970).

[xv] “Police Foundation: Progress Report,” pp. 6-8.

[xvi] The Ford Foundation Information Paper, Appendix B: “Summary of Grants, Foundation-Administered Projects and Publications,” (1973), Catalogued Reports, Reports 1-3254 (FA739A), Box 105, Report no. 002445, p. 1.

[xvii] The Ford Foundation Information Paper, Appendix B, p. 3.

 

Rethinking Partisanship in the Postwar United States

By Charlotte Rosen

In 2016, two Black Lives Matter activists made headlines when they confronted Hillary Clinton at a private fundraiser in Charleston, South Carolina. Holding a sign that contained the words “We have to bring them to heel,” Ashley Williams called on Clinton to “apologize to Black people for mass incarceration.” The sign referenced a statement Hillary Clinton made during her husband’s reelection campaign, where in praising President Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, she referred to the primarily Black working-class youth being targeted by the punitive crime legislation as “super-predators.” Clinton added, “We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.” During Williams’s action, Clinton became visibly flustered, frustrated, and then patronizing, accusing Williams of not wanting to hear the facts. Attendees in the video can be heard expressing their displeasure with Williams, saying things like “that’s rude” or “this is not appropriate.”[1]

Embedded in the audience’s irritation with Williams’s confrontation is a pervasive yet misleading historical interpretation of American politics in the post-WWII United States. In its most condensed form, this interpretation of postwar partisanship portrays Democrats and Republicans as polar, warring opposites: Democrats are pro-civil rights, in favor of robust social welfare programs, and egalitarian, while Republicans are hostile to racial, economic, and gender equality and enemies of big government social provision. Historically speaking, such a paradigm presents an “all-roads-lead-to-Reagan” narrative that interprets mass incarceration as the result of the New Right’s victorious ousting of a dying New Deal liberal order.[2] To expose the Clintons’ role in escalating the current crisis of racialized policing and imprisonment, as Williams did, disrupts this powerful historical construct of American partisanship. Two parties and their constituencies that once appeared at historic odds over racialized law and order politics now appear as all too comfortable accomplices in its harmful escalation.

Pointing out unsavory or bad faith liberal policymaking is far from a foreign project for urban historians. From detailing the structural shortcomings of the New Deal’s pro-growth economics, mapping the government’s many-handed facilitation of racially unequal housing markets and urban development policies, and outlining the ways liberal welfare programs criminalized working-class Black and Brown communities, the literature is robust and shows no signs of slowing. Yet, unspoken but powerful discursive boundaries between liberals and conservatives have shaped the way urban historians conceptualize power in the post-World War II era. Bad liberal actors or liberal constituencies are not hard to find in histories of postwar metropolitan inequality, but we have qualified their politically harmful actions as unintended, tightly bound to local or regional metropolitan contexts, and ultimately still not on par with conservatives. Even when expertly dissected, our core lens for understanding postwar history often remains one of partisan difference, with Democrats and Republicans’ epic battles driving our understanding of major political outcomes.[3]

Recent urban historical literature on the development of the postwar metropolis and rise of mass incarceration suggests that the framework of postwar partisanship obscures more than it clarifies. Specifically, this framework has erased an equally if not more important legacy of convergence between white conservative and liberal politicians and constituencies around core ideologies like the sanctity of private property rights, belief in the myth of meritocratic individualism, and the social and political decency of law and order policing.[4] Embedded in this bipartisan ideology is an ostensibly race-neutral and uncontroversial political economy that actually structurally disadvantages working-class Black and Brown communities through criminalization and exclusion. As common sense values for both postwar Republicans and Democrats, property ownership, consumer choice, and law and order stymied racial integration and legitimized new formations of racial subjugation in the late postwar period. By making it harder for analysts to see these norms as bipartisan – and therefore more powerfully entrenched in United States governance and political systems – a rigid partisan framework actually limits our ability to identify the mechanisms that keep white supremacy and capitalism churning in the post-Civil Rights era. As Matthew Lassiter contends, with “red-blue binaries” serving as the “hegemonic framework” of postwar US political history, we miss the unpleasant fact that a “supermajority” of white people found common ground in resisting racial integration.[5] And as Naomi Murakawa notes in The First Civil Right, partisan frameworks reductively paint racial inequality as the product of external “white animus” amid an otherwise “non-racial backdrop,” critically missing the shared norms and ideologies that reproduce hierarchies of racial difference in US political institutions and administrative structures.[6]

Scholarship on the postwar metropolis, and specifically the development of the suburbs, reveals the limits of the partisan binary. On the one hand, this literature has demonstrated that the New Deal era mass production of segregated white middle class property owners did not lead to a clear-cut partisan politics. Although once considered bastions of the New Right, it is now clear that suburbs served as ready incubators not just for conservatism but for more centrist and even diehard liberal political cultures. Yet, despite their differences in political party preference, white suburbanites of all stripes coalesced around a belief in the political purity of individual property ownership and the colorblind myth that they had earned prosperity through hard work instead of systemic white racial privilege. Suburbanites’ investment in the politics of homeownership produced what Matthew Lassiter calls in The Silent Majority a “bipartisan political language” of private property rights and white “suburban innocence” that resonated with both staunch conservatives and a more “volatile center” whose partisan preferences have been historically up for grabs.[7] Indeed, the electoral success of racially moderate and pro-growth New Democrats such as Bill Clinton or the more recent success of Doug Jones in the Sunbelt south remind us that suburban areas normally deemed loyal Republican strongholds were and remain electorally competitive. Even bleeding heart liberal suburbanites, whose partisan affiliation remained firmly Democratic in the postwar period, infused their party with the same free market meritocracy and individual property rights ethos of New South politicians. As Lily Geismer argues in Don’t Blame Us, although suburban liberals outside Boston led seemingly progressive campaigns for fair housing or metropolitan school integration, their foundational belief that their homes were the product of individual effort made their support for civil rights contingent on whether proposed reforms protected their property values and attendant racial privileges. Their perception of markets as fundamental so long as they were stripped of formal discrimination led them to repeatedly push for individualist solutions over ones that would meaningfully address historic structures of racial discrimination.[8]

In highlighting points of ideological convergence among white suburbanites, histories of postwar metropolitan space disrupt traditional narratives of partisan difference. Through zeroing in on what white suburbanites and their politicians actually do, rather than merely taking proclamations of party affiliation at face value, this literature reveals a more central and axiomatic bipartisan commitment to the historical fiction of meritocratic individualism, free markets, and private property as all-encompassing pathways to freedom. In doing so, this body of work actually helps us to make clearer sense of why racial inequality persists in our post-Civil Rights era. Although facially race-neutral, in practice these bipartisan ideologies enshrined racial hierarchies in politics, policymaking, and private markets by masking structural inequality and white complicity. Rather than rooting our analysis of postwar political development in party rhetoric or electoral gains and losses, studies of postwar metropolitan space uncover a more diffuse – and therefore more durable – bipartisan project of institutionalizing racial difference and protecting capitalism. Perhaps most pressingly, they presage the political perils of the Democratic party’s continued appeals to this white, middle-to-upper class suburban center. As Lily Geismer and Matthew Lassiter wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, such a strategy nourishes an unequal status quo and alienates the very working-class voters that are central to Democratic Party success.[9]

Histories of the postwar carceral state similarly suggest the ineffectiveness of partisan framing for making sense of mass incarceration. Naomi Murakawa, Elizabeth Hinton, Heather Ann Thompson, and Heather Schoenfeld dismantle common presentations of liberalism as a progressive foiPl to conservative law and order by revealing postwar Democrats’ expansive role in generating the racialized carceral state. Far from merely reacting or submitting to conservatives’ crime and punishment hysteria, postwar liberals laid the groundwork for the later mass imprisonment of Black communities.[10] Perhaps most shockingly, they did so not merely by bulking up the state’s criminal justice arms but by infusing punitive frameworks into often celebrated liberal social welfare programs. As Elizabeth Hinton demonstrates in From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime, postwar liberal administrators embedded racist assumptions about Black “cultural deficiencies” into flagship liberal welfare legislation, such as in President Kennedy’s Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act of 1961 and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and War on Crime, that constructed African American youth as pathologically criminal.[11] The result was that liberal administrations, and Johnson’s in particular, increasingly steered antipoverty programs towards more punitive forms of state intervention in majority Black neighborhoods that swapped social workers and community programs for law enforcement and militarization.

Johnson’s punitive “merger” of welfare with crime control reached its peak in the Safe Streets Act of 1968, which pumped $400 million via the newly created Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) into state governments for the purposes of modernizing local law enforcement and heightening the surveillance and social control in Black urban areas.[12] Nixon would go on to channel LEAA funds in ways that expanded the state’s capacity to criminalize the Black urban poor, and Reagan’s War on Drugs would implement some of the most harmful and racist carceral policies of the era. But scholarship on liberal law and order demonstrates that conservatives in many ways appropriated and expanded upon a liberal project of punitive anticrime policies, namely that of replacing robust social welfare administration with law enforcement, making the rise of racialized mass incarceration a distinctly bipartisan project.

Although mainstreaming knowledge about liberal complicity in mass incarceration and spatial segregation is crucial, the point is not that we should only blame liberals, but rather that partisan frameworks more generally limit our ability to see the causes and mechanisms of postwar inequality clearly. Julilly Kohler Hausmann’s study of welfare and criminal justice policymaking in the 1970s comes closest to modeling a post-partisanship framework by showing how grassroots constituencies and legislators on both sides of the aisle accepted as true the claim that “most criminals were governable only through punishment and incapacitation, and state efforts to rehabilitate them were futile and counterproductive.”[13] This is not to say, of course, that Republicans and Democrats are perfect mirror images of one another when it came to racialized crime politics; there remain critical differences between the two parties and their development over time that consequentially shaped the development of the racialized carceral state. But decentering partisanship cuts through the false binaries of the Democratic Party’s innocence and the Republican Party’s singular cruelty by making the historically co-constituted embrace of racialized law and order politics visible.

Beyond forcing us to contend with the real impact of this bipartisan “common sense,” decentering partisanship also means grappling with the messier historical forces that fueled carceral state expansion and the white supremacist metropolis. Even as this scholarship challenges an easy narrative of white elite culpability for mass incarceration or spatial segregation (bipartisan or otherwise), it also highlights the insufficiency of partisan frameworks to properly account for contemporary crises of inequality. For example, Kohler-Hausmann shows how harmful policies such as mandatory sentencing ironically have their roots in prisoners’ complaints about harm done by indeterminate sentencing. Similarly, James Foreman’s Locking Up Our Own describes how Black lawmakers in Washington D.C. supported punitive anticrime policies as an extension, rather than repudiation, of their civil rights commitment to the “protection of black lives.”[14]

Scholars of the suburbs have also rightfully refuted presentations of postwar suburbs as all-white and elite spaces, and in doing so have explored nonwhite suburbanites’ more complex relationships to property ownership and suburban political culture. Black suburbanites, whose population ballooned nationally in the postwar period, often acquired homes in suburbs out of a desire to escape the white supremacist spatial terrain of the city, achieve upward mobility, and build Black community, even as they faced continued racial barriers in the suburbs.[15] The fact that Black suburbanites’ pursuit of property often led them to strengthen rather than dismantle the unequal racial and class logics embedded in real estate markets cannot be understood absent a deeper analysis of property ownership as a means of liberation in African American communities. As Nathan D. B. Connolly contends in A World More Concrete, Black property ownership must be contextualized within a longer history of racialized political exclusion and structural violence that made property ownership one of the only means of a still limited Black political power.[16]

In other words, that the carceral state or metropolitan disparity is not the straightforward product of political conspiracy, and instead is the result of a more complex and historically-situated series of institutional legacies, unintended and intended policy outcomes, and political decisions, suggests partisanship’s constraints in telling this story. Decentering the explanatory power of partisan polarization, then, also allows us to better grasp how institutionalized and racist frameworks around law and order policing and Black criminality amplified some policies over others in ways that could coopt the intentions of more transformative reforms.

Once untethered from expectations about partisan political behavior, our narratives become less about revealing that liberals were racist or elitist or warmongers too—although such work has and continues to be vital— and more about diagnosing the shared ideologies, norms, and frameworks that keep white supremacy and capitalism afloat regardless of whom is in office. Even in our current moment, where Trump’s daily and terrifying legitimization of fascism and white nationalism might suggest a renewed need for partisan analysis, disrupting partisan frameworks is critical. Decentering partisanship reminds us that our work will not be done when Trump leaves office or when pundits deem the most visible manifestations of racial violence eliminated. As historian Dan Berger warns in his trenchant critique of the “First Step Act,” the much-celebrated bipartisan prison reform bill passed last November, the historic maintenance of a bipartisan “middle ground” that preserves the sanctity of policing and prisons ensures that reform efforts barely undo the carceral status quo and often serve to bolster it through repackaged forms of surveillance and criminalization.[17] Although it might be tempting to dig into narratives of postwar partisan polarization, approaching this same history with an eye for shared assumptions and bipartisan collaborations – what goes unquestioned or appears as orthodoxy to the majority of those involved – will offer a more clarifying, if less politically sexy, narrative of American state governance.

In clarifying where and how “liberalism and conservatism overlapped,” urban historians and historians of the carceral state should see our scholarship as ground zero for reconceptualizing the bigger postwar historical narrative of United States politics. This does not mean ignoring real partisan difference or discarding deep analyses of party politics entirely. The discrete political agendas of Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, or northeastern liberals and southern segregationists, continue to deserve analysis. But a bipartisan lens is crucial for making sense of the postwar era’s most defining markers of institutional racial and economic inequality, including the crisis of mass incarceration, rampant resegregation of public schools, the return of Gilded Age levels of income inequality, and much more. With scholarship on the postwar carceral state and metropolitan politics as our guide, urban historians should see partisan convergence not merely as added historical complexity but as a framework for theorizing – and potentially reimagining—20th century American state power.

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Charlotte Rosen is a doctoral student at Northwestern University studying US urban history. She is currently researching crime and prison politics in late-twentieth-century Pennsylvania. Prior to graduate school, Charlotte worked for a housing justice nonprofit in the Bay Area. You can find her on Twitter @CharlotteERosen.

 

 

Featured image: Black Lives Matters activist Ashley Williams confronting Democratic Candidate Hillary Clinton during a South Carolina fundraiser in February, 2016. Image originally featured here.

[1] “Mrs. Clinton Campaign Speech,” January 25th, 1996, C-SPAN, https://www.c-span.org/video/?69606-1/mrs-clinton-campaign-speech; Eugene Scott, “Black Lives Matter Protestors confront Clinton at Fundraiser,” February 25th, 2016, CNN.com, https://www.cnn.com/2016/02/25/politics/hillary-clinton-black-lives-matter-whichhillary/index.html.

[2] Matthew Lassiter, “Political History Beyond the Red-Blue Divide,” The Journal of American History 98, no. 3 (2011): 761.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); Lassiter, “Political History Beyond the Red-Blue Divide;” Julilly Kohler Haussman, Getting Tough: Welfare and Imprisonment in 1970s America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017); Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014); Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[5] Lassiter, “Political History Beyond the Red-Blue Divide,” 763.

[6] Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right, 8.

[7] Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority, 1, 304, 319.

[8] Lily Geismer, Don’t Blame Us: Suburban Liberals and the Transformation of the Democratic Party (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014). See also Lila Corwin Berman, Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[9] Lily Geismer and Matthew Lassiter, “Turning Affluent Suburbs Blue Isn’t Worth the Cost,” June 9th, 2018, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/09/opinion/sunday/affluent-suburbs-democrats.html.

[10] Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime; Naomi Murakawa, The First Civil Right; Heather Schoenfeld, Building A Prison State: Race and the Politics of Mass Incarceration (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018); Heather Ann Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History,” The Journal of American History 97, no. 3 (2010): 703–34.

[11] Hinton, 39.

[12] Hinton, 98, 103-135.

[13] Julilly Kohler Haussman, Getting Tough, 210.

[14] James Forman, Jr., Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), 11.

[15] Andrew Wiese, Places of Their Own: African American Suburbanization in the Twentieth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 8.

[16] Nathan D. B. Connolly, A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014)

[17] Dan Berger, “What the Latest Bipartisan Prison Reform Gets Wrong and Why It Matters,” November 16th, 2018, Truthout.org, https://truthout.org/articles/what-the-latest-bipartisan-prison-reform-gets-wrong-and-why-it-matters/.

Reflections on Disciplining the City

By Matt Guariglia 

This year the New York City Police Department announced that it would be integrating a new fleet of drones into its policing procedure for large events. In 2018, the NYPD also announced that it was experimenting with a lasso that would subdue citizens during mental health crises. Even as policing becomes more technologically advanced (see: predictive policing) it also serves us constant reminders that it is an institution temporally trapped. As often as they go to cutting edge technologies to mitigate problems, they also draw upon the well of history—even if that means redeploying tactics that would have looked familiar a century and a half ago. This is why, 2018 was a year in which studying the history of policing, crime, and incarceration was more pivotal than ever.

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Armed policeman holding newspaper “Muhammad Speaks,” taken from the trunk of a car following shootout near a Black Muslim mosque in Los Angeles, 1965, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

All year the increasingly frequent overlapping worlds of public scholarship and academic publishing have been rife with important work to help us contextualize both this change over time and the continuity in the history criminal justice and state power. University of North Carolina Press’s intrepid “Justice, Power, and Politics” series edited by Heather Ann Thompson and Rhonda Y. Williams has published incredible works including Max Felker-Kantor’s Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance and the Rise of the LAPD, Tera Eva Agyepong’s The Criminalization of Black Children: Race, Gender, and Delinquency in Chicago’s Juvenile Justice System, 1899-1945, and Adam Malka’s The Men of Mobtown: Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation, which helps historians fill in that pivotal moment as the state and its deputized mobs transitioned from attempting to subordinate enslaved individuals to attempting to exert control over free citizens. Similarly, Monica Muñoz Martinez’s 2018 book The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas from Harvard University Press provides an analysis of how state and non-state violence on the U.S.-Mexican border was interwoven. The findings of this book, including its essential chronicling of the Texas Rangers, should now be at the center all of historians’ analysis of state violence, police power, and U.S. imperialism.

51ofMqWFZmL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Other books that came out this year also open up new directions for how historians in the future can better understand police, not as faceless agents of the state, but as people and laborers with their own ideologies. Timothy Lombardo’s Blue-Collar Conservatism: Frank Rizzo’s Philadelphia and Populist Politics from University of Pennsylvania Press provides historians and readers with an understanding of law and order politics from the ground up as it chronicles Philadelphia police commissioner and mayor Frank Rizzo’s rise to power by playing on the politics of race, place, and blue-collar white ethnicity. As the news media becomes increasingly aware of how prevalent extreme ring-wing and white supremacist ideologies are within the ranks of police and the military in the United States, Kathleen Belew’s earth shattering new book Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America from Harvard University Press, is increasingly essential. It should now be an expectation that all scholars of state institutions like the military and police departments look at the types of networks and ideologies that can form within those infrastructures.

In addition to each of these authors making a number of media appearances to discuss their books and expertise, good scholarly analysis of policing and incarceration have also been prevalent in forums like the Washington Post’s “Made By History,” including Dan Berger’s article on the Florida prison strike or Susan Pearson’s article connecting state management of birth certificates with Jim Crow and racial state building . The Boston Review’s most recent issue “Evil Empire: A Reckoning With Power” also features a number of historians of racial state building, empire, and state violence including Marisol LeBrón, Nikhil Pal Singh, and Stuart Schrader. This very blog, The Metropole and its “Disciplining the City” series ran a number of incredibly interesting and useful pieces this year, including Carolyn Levy’s article on policing a gendered morality in 19th century San Francisco.

2019 will be a bigger year for scholars and students hoping to enrich the growing field of carceral studies. In the upcoming year, the field will continue to grow as scholars expand what we consider the boundaries of the carceral state. Historians of politics, surveillance, immigration restrictions, the policing of gender and sexuality, the relationship between the state and segregation, all have an opportunity to contribute to our understanding of the development of carceral logic. In the current climate where people divulge an overwhelming amount of personal data—from taste in shoes to DNA—to profit-seeking corporations known to cooperate with the police, it is essential that historians of prisons and policing understand surveillance and knowledge production about subjects as central to the carceral project. Books like Sarah Igo’s The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America and 2017’s Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America by Josh Lauer, and Simone Brown’s 2015 book Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness are as requisite reading for scholars grappling with how the state learned how to build a its current system and who to inhabit it with.

Across the country, scholars interested in the carceral state spoke to politicians, law schools, and served as experts and consultants on questions of criminal justice and prison reform. Scholars also used their positions in and out of universities to contribute to invaluable prison education programs and to bring attention to the indignities of modern incarceration. Around the country scholars have also lead symposia, conferences, workshops, with students, the public, and incarcerated people to discuss the meaning and history of the carceral state and how it effects the lives of so many. The Urban History Association, the purveyors of this blog, hosted close to ten panels at its 2018 conference in Columbia, South Carolina that touched on issues of incarceration, crime, and policing.

As the field of imprisonment and policing history becomes larger in the coming years, my hope is that the scope of that field will stay wide and inclusive. More scholars and more scholarship means we can all continue to grapple with how diffuse the power of the state and its deputized civilians and corporations can be. As many scholars have shown, policing and incarceration directed at vulnerable people on the edges of society inform what happens at the center, and how policing looks in the center informs the type of policing used at the edges. Historians, however, have never been better equipped to excavate, to quote Kelly Lytle Hernández, “incarceration—and the patterns it harbors.”

Featured image (at top): Composite photograph group of the Chiefs of Police, New York City, 1889, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Matthew Guariglia is the editor of The Metropole’s Disciplining the City series and a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Connecticut. His most recent work exploring Donald Trump’s use of MS-13 in rhetorical fear mongering appeared in the Washington Post in April. 

Policing Unpolicable Space: The Mulberry Bend

By Matthew Guariglia 

During the Progressive Era, there were parts of New York City that police understood as being immune to the exertions of state power. These areas could be rendered illegible and uncontrollable for a number of reasons. In some instances, as I have discussed on The Metropole before, the foreignness of immigrant populations, especially people of Chinese descent, often made it hard for the majority of Anglo-Irish police officers to communicate with witnesses or understand the motives behind alleged crimes. In other situations, the city’s unknowable alleyways, shadowy dead ends, dangerously unstable infrastructure, and rebellious residents prohibited police interventions.

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View of “Mulberry Bend” – Arrival of contract laborers for the coal mines, 1888, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The Mulberry Bend served as one of the most notorious examples of a location seemingly immune to state intervention or local attempts to instil law and order. A crowded collection of tenements and alleyways, the Bend formed in the elbow-like turn of Mulberry and Baxter streets in the Five Points neighborhood. Before the administration of Mayor Strong took on the Bend in 1895, reformers concerned with overcrowding, squalid conditions, and the breeding of crime and disease, had for years advocated the destruction of the crooked cluster of buildings and its crisscross of alleyways. Jacob Riis, the journalist, reformer, and close personal friend of President of the Police Board of Commissioners Theodore Roosevelt, was partially responsible for the eventual push that resulted in the destruction of the Bend. His 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, shocked upper class New Yorkers with its sensationalized and often demeaning depictions of working class life in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. One of the more disturbing photographs to aristocratic sensibilities was that of the “Bandit’s Roost,” at 59 ½ Mulberry Street. The image shows a narrow alleyway in the Bend, darkened by the closeness of the buildings and the prevalence of laundry draped from clotheslines above. On either side of the alley men, presumably immigrants, stare down the photographer—some hanging from windows, one holding a plank menacingly.

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Stale bread vendor– Mulberry Bend, photograph by Jacob Riis, 1890, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

“There is but one ‘Bend’ in the world, and it is enough,” wrote Riis. “In the scores of back alleys, of stable lanes and hidden byways, of which the rent collector alone can keep track, they share such shelter as the ramshackle structures afford with every kind of abomination….”[1] The Bend depicted by Riis was one in which police feared to enter—where fleeing criminals could run down an alleyway, or into a tenement, and be lost to authorities. “Post Thirteen,” as police referred to it, was everyone’s last choice to patrol and often where officers would send recent appointments to scare them, or perhaps as a hazing ritual.[2]

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If and when police did enter the Bend, it was often as part of a raid on the area’s “stale beer” dives and required a number of policemen to execute. These raids often required either local guides or undercover police to scout ahead of time to find the dives which were often hidden “in back rooms at the end of long, dark hallways, up creaking and greasy stairways or in attics with low, blackened ceilings.” In one instance, an undercover officer doing reconnaissance before a planned raid actually consumed the “stale beer,” and was reportedly bedridden for six months as a result.[3]

The Bend was not just dangerous for police attempting to navigate it alone; it was also a place that was profoundly filthy. One report from the 1870s, suggested that only 24 of the 609 tenement buildings in the Bend were in decent condition. In the mind of Riis, these dark, damp, and crumbling living quarters bred disease as well as crime. In the year 1882 alone, he recorded that 155 children died in the Bend from disease. It was a place where even the “sanitary reformer, gives up the task in despair.”[4]

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Baxter Street Alley in Mulberry Bend, photograph by Jacob Riis, 1888-1889, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Riis, and many like him, saw one solution to both the problem of health and crime in the Bend; remake the space so it would not longer be a literal and metaphorical dark spot on the maps of police and sanitary inspectors. Under the new reformist Strong administration, and with the help of Roosevelt, the 600 families that inhabited the Bend were required to vacate by June 1, 1895. The city auctioned off each building, and their new owners were required to move them off the bend as soon as possible. Despite Riis’s claim that only residents and rent collectors could navigate the alleyways of the bend, as of the day of auction, it was estimated that no one had been able to secure rent money from tenants in over six months.[5]

After the destruction on the Bend, the elbow-shaped plot of land became the open and green Mulberry Bend Park, renamed Columbus Park in 1911. Where once there stood an illegible area, a place seemingly immune to the exertion of state power, there now stood an open park, which purposely left barely a tree to hide behind.[6]

Matthew Guariglia is the editor of The Metropole’s Disciplining the City series and a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Connecticut. His most recent work exploring Donald Trump’s use of MS-13 in rhetorical fear mongering appeared in the Washington Post in April. 

Featured photo (at top): A vegetable stand in the Mulberry St. bend, photograph by Jacob Riis, 1889-1890, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. 

[1] Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1890, 56.

[2] “A Night on Post Thirteen,” The World, March 7, 1891, 6.

[3] A Night on Post Thirteen,” The World, March 7, 1891, 6.

[4] Ibid, 56, 62, 67.

[5] “Mulberry Bend’s Auction,” The Evening World, June 6, 1895, 2

[6] Letter from Henry Percy to Jacob Riis, June 14, 1897, Reel 3. Jacob Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Policing the Public: Public Outcry and the Threat of Moral Intervention in San Francisco, 1857

By Carolyn Levy 

On April 4th, 1857, the San Francisco newspaper Daily Globe published a column concerning the existence of Chinese prostitutes in the city. Daily Globe was a short-lived newspaper, published only from 1856 to 1858. Although the newspaper did not last, the column published in the Daily Globe is indicative of the public sentiments that pushed for the development of organizations like the California Workingmen’s Party—which, in turn, pushed for laws targeting Chinese immigrants. Police forces alone could not prevent Chinese prostitution in San Francisco. However, the combined actions of the police, white citizens, and the federal government effectively targeted the Chinese and reduced the number of potential threats to white America. The column on April 4th read:

“The Voice of Many Citizens.

An indecent exhibition of harlots, has, for some weeks, disgraced the streets of San Francisco. An open insult to the family of every citizen is daily paraded through the principal promenades, in the shape of a gaudy equipage with liveried servants, filled with the most notorious of the abandoned women of the city. In a larger place than this, so audacious a violation of the proprieties of life, would perhaps pass unnoticed, but this community, the wrong to good morals, and to the fair name of our city, is too apparent not to require prompt action to stop so disgraceful a scene—one which tells to every child in the city a tale of infamy, and which is a mock and insult to every honest woman who is forced to meet it in her walks. This thing has been suffered long enough. It is now a crying evil, and while Chinese brothels are being deluged with water on every opportunity, infamy in a gilden [sic] coach is allowed the freedom of the city. A warning is now given that this scandal can not be permitted. It will be well for those interested to take heed.”

Professional police departments were a relatively new development at the time this column was published. As such, the anonymous writings published in the Daily Globe speak to the perceived need for citizens to aid in dealing with crime in the city. Published prior to the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments as well as the building of the transcontinental railroad, there were few reasons for the federal government to intervene in immigration in San Francisco in the 1850s. However, within a few decades, the federal government had enacted multiple laws—including the Page Act (1872), the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), and the Geary Act (1892)—in order to control Chinese immigration and therefore the composition of individuals living within the United States. How did moral policing instigated by citizens, understood here as white, likely middle-class individuals and groups, transform into a federal immigration issue? The answer lies in the policing of racialized others within the United States.

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History of San Francisco mural “Beating the Chinese” by Anton Refregier at Rincon Annex Post Office located near the Embarcadero at 101 Spear Street, San Francisco, California, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, Carol M. Highsmith collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Historians have attempted to trace the development of Chinese and Asian racialization in the United States.[1] Racializing the Chinese as yellow, and therefore not white, made it easier to attach other issues to racial difference. Arguments about moral and religious differences stemmed from racialization, and these accusations of difference had real political consequences. Individuals like the proclaimed “Voice of Many Citizens,” pointed to Chinese prostitutes as symbols of immorality, and therefore the antithesis of respectability. The writer’s threat to take heed should not be viewed as a mild warning, as moral policing in the United States could result in forcibly intervening in the lives of those deemed immoral. Indeed, as reform movements surged during the Progressive Era, reformers used intrusive and violent strategies, as seen with groups like the Society for the Suppression of Vice and the Committee of Fourteen and Committee of Fifteen in NY.[2]

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Anti-Asian sentiment in turn of the century American media, “How John may dodge the Exclusion Act“, circa 1905, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The 1857 column cited here serves as an early sign of the sentiments behind the push to legally discriminate against the Chinese. The arguments for Chinese exclusion were not limited to gendered moral critiques. The Page Act stated that, “the importation into the United States of women for the purposes of prostitution is hereby forbidden…it shall be unlawful for aliens of the following classes to immigrate into the United States, namely, persons who are undergoing sentence for conviction in their own country of felonious crimes other than political or growing out of or the result of such political offenses, and women “imported for the purposes of prostitution.””[3] The Page Act was created in order to prevent Chinese female prostitutes from immigrating to the United States, but in practice the law was used to stop almost all Chinese women from coming to the United States. The Page Law’s emphasis on the deviant moral character and sexual nature of Chinese women demonstrated the significance of maintaining and protecting an American form of culture and sexuality that was considered the moral norm. Scholar Eithne Luibhéid described the Page Law as the “harbinger not only of sexual, but also of racial, ethnic, gender, and class exclusions that were codified by subsequent immigration laws.”[4] The Page Law serves as proof of the role public discourse and the state played in determining respectability. This relationship between the public and the state is further revealed in the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Geary Act. The power to police was not restricted to police forces, nor was it solely based on the impetus of state authorities. Within the general public, white American citizens played a crucial role in monitoring and policing racialized others.

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Carolyn Levy is a PhD Candidate in the dual-title program with the departments of History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research focuses on constructions of gender, sexuality, and respectability in the United States during the nineteenth century. You can find her information at http://history.psu.edu/directory/cal65 and follow her on Twitter @carolynannlevy.

Image at top of the article: A Chinese grocery – San Francisco, circa 1904, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[1] Najia Aarim-Heriot, Chinese Immigrants, African Americas, and Racial Anxiety in the United States 1848-1882 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003). Aarim-Heriot describes the process of racializing the Chinese as “Negroization”. See also Michael Keevak, Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2011).

[2] See Jennifer Fronc, New York Undercover: Private Surveillance in the Progressive Era (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009). See also George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (Basic Books, 1994).

[3] Forty-Third Congress, Sess. 11, “Ch. 141,” 1875.

[4] Luibhéid, Entry Denied, 31.

Policing the White City

Our third and final entry in The Metropole/Urban History Association Graduate Student Blogging Contest explores the intersection of law enforcement, imperialism, and American racial hierarchies through the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago intended to reflect the high point of U.S. and white Western civilization and, according to reports published by some of Chicago’s most famous detectives, the police that patrolled it did the same.[1] The centerpiece of the exhibition, the White City, was a sprawling downtown full of water features, glittering towers, and grand facades done in the French Neoclassical style. However, as the scientific advancements, historic recreations, and white domes attracted millions to the fairgrounds, the Chicago police also feared the temptation of millions of wallets and naïve tourists would attract visitors of a seedier element.

In an effort to police the impeccable international city with an impeccable international police force Chicago police utilized the new technologies and tactics developed by police departments in the U.S. and across Europe throughout the 1890s. Enabled by a number of scientific and bureaucratic advancements they had imported from departments around the globe, the Chicago police attempted to put the cutting edge of policing into practice in the White City.

For instance, the criminal file, complex systems of identification, new vehicles, and modern investigative techniques were all in use at the Columbian Exposition, and each had been recently imported to the U.S. from police departments in Europe. In many instances, the European detectives who invented and utilized these innovations were the veterans and masterminds behind new systems of coercive governance in colonies abroad, making late nineteenth and early twentieth century police departments in Europe—and invariably the U.S.—the product of a growing sense of globalism and a lasting imprint of imperialism on the intellectual and urban landscape.

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Ferris wheel at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

During the exposition, Chicago detectives specifically worked with the Bertillon method, a system of identifying criminals based on bodily measurements, which had been developed by M. Alphonse Bertillon of the Paris police department. Likewise, for months, the Chicago police reportedly collected criminal files and familiarized themselves with the faces of the most notorious wrongdoers in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Europe should any of them appear on the fairgrounds.

Like the technologies and tactics utilized by the police, the men recruited to the force were also of an international makeup and intended to represent the pinnacle of white Victorian manhood. Historians like Gail Bederman, Kevin Murphy, and Michael Tavel Clarke have shown how “[l]ate Victorian culture had identified the powerful, large male body of the heavyweight prizefighter (and not the smaller bodies of the middleweight or welterweight) as the epitome of manhood,” and how these racialized, gendered, and embodied values became deeply engrained in police departments across the United States.[2] Images of Victorian manhood often deliberately excluded men of color. Despite a slowly growing presence of African American patrolmen in the Chicago police department—, of the 2,000 job openings for the “Columbian Guard,” the policemen of the White City—, not a single man of color was hired for the force.

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The title of this photo, “Cannibals carrying their master” underscores the larger themes of imperialism, Orientalism and the “Other” at play at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Ill, 1893, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

For a year before the official start of the exposition, the Chicago police recruited dozens of detectives from cities across the United States and from around the world as they culled the corrupt, lazy, and “unworthy” members from their department. Each major police department from Europe was asked to detail, and provide the salary for, two of their own officers to patrol the city should any of their hometown villains make an appearance. In total, 600 foreign police reported for duty at the exposition, all of them white, tall, and fighting fit.[3]

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Columbian Guard at Chicago’s World Fair, 1893

To walk around the exposition, it was nearly impossible not to internalize the intended argument that the future of the United States was unassailably white. Where people of color did exist at the exposition, they were relegated to the outskirts, or the metaphorical past. Along the Midway, the main thorough fair at the exhibition, American Indians participated in “outdoor living exhibits” as part of an anthropological and chronological journey through Western civilization. Nearby, one of the largest living exhibits on the Midway was the Dahomean Village, a sensationalist view of a West African village portrayed through stereotype and colonial trope.

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Parade of Arabian circus, at World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois, 1893, Prints and Photographic Division, Library of Congress

African Americans at the fair also received little representation. After mostly excluding Black exhibitors from other halls, the exposition never fulfilled their initial intention of creating, a hall for the literary accomplishments of Black Americans. As the fair progressed, the Haitian building became a center of organizing and activism. Under the editorship of Ida B. Wells, and with writing and collaboration from Frederick Douglass, a group of activists wrote, published, and distributed a pamphlet entitled “The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” In the pamphlet, which over 10,000 tourists received, lynching, and the police who enabled it, were as much on trial as the exclusive white organizers of the exhibition.

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Statue of the Republic and arch, at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, Charles Dudley Arnold, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Like the event itself, the police at the Columbian exposition may have represented the current high water mark of modern science and technology, but it also served as a reflection of the white society’s evolving commitment to imperialist thinking and white supremacy—after all, this was the event where historian Fredrick Jackson Turner rolled out his “Frontier Thesis.” The police force’s internationalism, both in officers and in tactics, only emphasizes that the project of subordination along racial lines was not unique to the United States, but an undertaking shared and collaborated on by imperialist powers on either side of the Atlantic.

Matthew Guariglia is the editor of The Metropole’s Disciplining the City series and a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Connecticut. His most recent work on the dangers of overzealous government surveillance appeared in the Washington Post for its “Made by History” series earlier this summer. 

[1] W. McClaughry and John Bonfield, “Police Protection at the World’s Fair, “ The North American Review, Vol. 156, No. 439 (June, 1893), 711-716.

[2] Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, 8.

[3] Christopher Robert Reed, All the World is Here!: The Black Presence at the White City, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002, 74.

Preserving Law and Order: The Fight for Los Angeles’ Parker Center

By Meredith Drake Reitan, MPL, PhD

On February 7, 2017, the Los Angeles City Council ruled against colleagues on the Cultural Heritage Commission. After a lengthy and emotional public comment period, the Council decided not to designate Parker Center, the longtime headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department, a local historic monument. The following month, the Council approved a new master plan for the Civic Center that included a 27-story tower on the Parker Center site. These decisions ended years of wrangling by preservationists, neighbors and city leaders about the future of the building.

Built in 1955, the police department abandoned Parker Center 54 years later when a new headquarters was constructed a few blocks away. The site’s large size and proximity to City Hall made it a target for redevelopment and many city leaders supported demolition of the “outdated” and “inefficient” building.[1] The city’s goal for the site was to consolidate departments scattered around the downtown area and to reduce the amount spent on leased space.

Parker Center may have been bright and shiny when originally built, but its construction and the legacy of its namesake cast a long shadow over the preservation debate.[2] The building was a complicated symbol for Los Angeles; representing the problematic history of the LAPD and the loss of a significant portion of the Japanese neighborhood of Little Tokyo. The fight to preserve it had divided allies and pitted communities that usually worked together against each other.[3]

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Figure 1: With its imposing front façade, the Los Angeles Police Department headquarters was designed by Welton Becket and J.E. Stanton and completed in 1955. The original landscape was created by Ralph E. Cornell. The building was posthumously dedicated to Police Chief William H. Parker in 1969. Photo by author, July 2017.

Parker Center as Scar

Preservation documents prepared for the Cultural Heritage Commission briefly mention the buildings that occupied the Parker Center site before its construction. The reports described the area simply as “residential with small clusters of commercial and industrial enterprises.”[4] Newspapers from the period gave a slightly fuller view, suggesting that the number of buildings removed to accommodate Parker Center was “enough to meet the business needs of a good-sized city, among them landmark structures that were notable in Los Angeles’ pre-metropolitan days.”[5]

Parker Center occupies some of the oldest blocks in Los Angeles. In the 19th century, the land was used for cattle and planted with grape vines. As the city urbanized, the neighborhood was settled by a racially and ethnically diverse mix of African American, Jewish, Irish, German and Chinese newcomers. After 1900, Japanese families established businesses along First Street and by 1920, the area was the “undisputed center” of Southern California’s Japanese community.[6] Twenty years later, on the eve of World War II, approximately 35,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans lived and worked in what had become known as Little Tokyo.

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and the Japanese community of Los Angeles was forcibly removed. They were released from the internment camps three years later and returned to the city. In the years they were gone, Little Tokyo had become home to thousands of African American migrants who were drawn to Los Angeles’ industrial jobs. After the war, Japanese Americans began to re-establish businesses in the area. However, in 1948 the city council identified the heart of Little Tokyo as the location for the new police headquarters. The area bounded by First Street, San Pedro, Market Street and Los Angeles Street was designated part of the Los Angeles Civic Center and the City Attorney’s office began to acquire property through eminent domain proceedings.[7] Forty-three individual parcels were condemned and the site was cleared.

Designed by Welton Becket and Associates, in collaboration with architect J.E. Stanton and landscape architect Ralph E. Cornell, the new “Police Facilities Building” was nationally recognized when it opened in 1955. Like many of his other projects, the building represented the architect’s commitment to the idea of Los Angeles as a “city of tomorrow.”[8] For the LAPD, Becket created an 8-story International style building with crisp right angles and spare detailing. Sitting away from the street, the landscape that initially surrounded the building occupied an entire city block with sprawling lawns, decorative river rock and gardens inspired by a Japanese Zen aesthetic. The design received an Award of Merit from the AIA in 1956 and a contemporary review suggested that the building represented a “brand-new design category” of centralized public facilities.[9] Drawings were displayed by the Architectural League of New York and the building was entered in the League’s 61st National Gold Medal Exhibition of the Building Arts in 1960.[10] Becket’s success with the Police Facilities Building earned the firm additional commissions in the Los Angeles Civic Center, including the Federal Building next door and the various buildings for the Music Center on the top of Bunker Hill completed in the 1960s.

While acknowledged as an architectural icon, city staffers received numerous letters against preserving Parker Center. More than 3,000 African Americans had been displaced by the condemnation proceedings of the 1940s, and yet most letters recalled the losses of the Japanese American community. Letter writers described a pre-war world of rich familial and social connections. They talked about shopping in stores now demolished and included family photos with smiling siblings and relations in front of restaurants and small businesses. The letters also told stories of grandfathers who participated in sumo wrestling at a dohyo on the block and uncles who founded the still extant Rafu Shimpo Newspaper in a building on the corner of First and Los Angeles Street.[11]

For many Japanese Americans, saving Parker Center meant preserving a scar. It was a reminder of years of disconnection and “mass displacement.”[12] The building’s presence in the neighborhood inspired anger. In his comments before the Planning and Land Use Commission, Chris Komai of the Little Tokyo Community Council suggested that the building represented an “unfair seizure.” He went on to say that while its architecture might be admired, the LAPD building had cut Little Tokyo off from the Civic Center and the rest of the city, “Look at it. All we see is its back.”[13] Kanji Sahara, another opponent of preservation, spoke for many when he told the commission, “the city said they needed the land for a ‘public purpose’ – to build Parker Center. Now that the public purpose has gone away, the Japanese people want that land back”.[14]

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Figure 2: The rear of Parker Center is dour. It offers a blank, windowless wall to the Little Tokyo neighborhood located behind it. Photo by author, July 2017.

In arguing against preservation, some letter writers found themselves in an uncomfortable position, noting that they would normally be on the side of those trying to save a building.[15] The break with the Los Angeles Conservancy was particularly difficult. The Conservancy was a strong and vocal supporter of the Little Tokyo National Register District that protected several blocks of the neighborhood’s early commercial core. More strategically, the Conservancy was an essential and necessary ally. Due to gentrification pressures, local landowners had begun to sell older properties to developers and there were concerns that Little Tokyo would not “survive”.[16] While Parker Center was an issue, local leaders still considered preservation to be an important tool to control growth.

The Historic American Landscape Survey for Parker Center prepared by the city’s Department of Public Works emphasized the building’s architectural legacy and defended the structure using the technical language of preservation.[17] The report had not addressed the site’s previous Japanese and Japanese American users. The documents also failed to acknowledge issues important to other communities of color in Los Angeles. While innovation described the structure, social conservatism defined the LAPD that filled the offices.

Chief Parker Divides the City

Early Parker Center preservation documents described the Los Angeles Police Department in glowing terms. Later comments by staff of the Cultural Heritage Commission suggested that the department’s legacy among Los Angeles’ non-white communities was “complicated.” The Los Angeles Conservancy acknowledged that the building was named for the “controversial” Chief William H. Parker.[18] All three sources credit Chief Parker for professionalizing the department, however the abuses of power that accompanied this professionalization are hard to ignore.

William Parker joined the Los Angeles Police Department in 1927. He became its leader in August 1950 and served in this capacity until his death in 1966. During his tenure, Parker established strict new standards for the recruitment and training of officers. According to the Historic American Landscape Survey, Parker was a “policeman’s policeman.” He “inspired in all who served the department the higher ideals of service and justice, as well as a new sense of pride, professionalism and self-discipline.”[19] The Chief’s efforts in this area earned him a national reputation that he capitalized on through his friendship with the actor Jack Webb, who played Sgt. Joe Friday in the 1960s television show, Dragnet.

While he may have inspired the department’s rank and file, in private Chief Parker was an impatient and ambitious man. He was also quick to attack. Like a “horse charging toward the apocalypse of our times”, Parker was critical of anyone who disagreed with his strict law and order prescription for society. [20] He resisted political oversight of the LAPD and attempted to undermine the credibility of his detractors. According to Parker, only the “criminal, the Communist and the self-appointed defender of civil liberties” called for restrictions on police authority.[21] Parker’s impatience was accompanied by a sustained and irrational paranoia. He attributed his failures to local democrats, the Truman administration and to communist sympathizers who he imagined had personal vendettas against him. To balance the scales, Parker created a “mysterious and highly secret” intelligence gathering unit within the LAPD that reported directly to him.[22] The group served as his personal “Pretorian guard” and, before it was disbanded by court order, the unit had amassed thousands of records on 5×8 note cards. The files contained data on known criminals, as well as political and public figures.[23]

Parker coined the term, the “thin blue line” to describe the police as an institution that stood between “civilization and barbarism”.[24] However, Parker’s LAPD was capable of its own brand of barbarity. Records from the department’s Internal Affairs Division show that in 1951 alone, the police received 848 complaints of brutality. Internal investigations substantiated 298 of these complaints and yet just 10 officers faced disciplinary action. Only two officers were removed from the force due to the complaints.[25]

Newspapers frequently reported incidences of police violence while Parker was in command. Patrolmen fired their weapons at a doctor in East Los Angeles who had apparently failed to yield because he was rushing to the bedside of a sick child.[26] A local bus driver was hospitalized after officers attempted to “subdue” him during an arrest. Among other injuries, the driver sustained a blow that ruptured his bladder.[27] A shoemaker was approached in his car by two plain clothed officers with their weapons drawn. The officers pulled the man from the car, threw him to the ground and repeatedly kicked his head. The man was taken to the hospital and later informed that the officers had mistaken him for a suspect.[28]

On Christmas Day 1951, seven young men were arrested on misdemeanor charges and taken to the city jail where they were savagely beaten for hours by somewhere between 15 and 50 police officers. When the incident came to light, Parker claimed to be “vigorously” pursuing an internal investigation.[29] However, the allegations against officers were so appalling that they could not be contained. A judge ordered a grand jury and public inquest. During the hearings, police officials were asked to describe the night. According to the judge, their testimony stunk, “to high heaven and all of the perfumery in Arabia cannot obliterate its stench.”[30] Thirty-six officers were disciplined by the LAPD, while 8 others were indicted for assault with a deadly weapon.[31] Of the eight, five officers were found guilty and sentenced to either one or two years in the Los Angeles County Jail.

Despite public commitments to reform, the brutality continued. In 1959, Herbert Greenwood, the only African American Police Commissioner, resigned citing the “unhealthy attitudes” of the LAPD leadership regarding race.[32] Then, on a hot August night in 1965, Marquette Frye was arrested in Watts for suspicion of driving drunk. During his arrest, Frye, his mother and brother fought with an officer of the California Highway Patrol. Hundreds of residents were drawn to the scene and anger spread through the crowd. Frye’s arrest sparked six days of fighting, looting and rebellion during which thirty-four people were killed. Chief Parker saw this and other protests against the police as a personal attack. To Parker, it was the complaints, rather than the police, that were “wrecking” the LAPD.[33] Over time, his lack of transparency and repugnant comments in the aftermath of Watts worsened relations with Los Angeles’ communities of color.[34]

However, while Parker was unpopular for some, his strongman rhetoric was lionized by others. After his death, members of the City Council unanimously recommended that Becket’s Police Facilities Building and the ground on which it stands be named in his honor. The name change was enthusiastically supported by the city’s business elite and residents who described Parker as a “great American” and “champion of law and order.”[35] The Sentinel, the city’s largest African-American newspaper, reported the Chief’s death, but remained silent on the issue of renaming police headquarters in his honor.

Parker was succeeded by new chiefs. However, relations between the police and Los Angeles’ communities of color did not improve and the lawn in front of Parker Center was the location of countless demonstrations against police misconduct. The issue became especially charged when Parker’s prodigy, Daryl Gates assumed the position of Chief. Gates, perhaps even more than Parker, became a symbol of the racism and prejudice that permeated the LAPD. Over the years, Parker’s thin blue line had become thicker. By 1992, it was an impassable chasm, so that when four LAPD officers were acquitted in the nighttime beating of an African American motorist on a lonely highway, the city exploded. Again.

The Police Department’s relationship with Los Angeles’ citizens of color was a quiet bass note that sounded throughout discussions about whether to save the building. Most African American leaders were silent on the issue, however a few voices sought to use and reinterpret this history by adaptively re-using Parker Center. Gail Kennard, an African American member of the city’s cultural heritage commission acknowledged that, “preserving Parker Center won’t resolve L.A.’s troubled policing history. But restored and reopened, it can remind us how far we’ve come and how much more there is to do.”[36]

Future of the Parker Center Site

In retrospect, it is not surprising that the effort to preserve Parker Center failed. The Cultural Heritage Commission received a handful of lukewarm letters in support of preservation, but the fame of its architect could not overcome the building’s legacy of division. Parker Center sliced through the neighborhood that surrounded it, its namesake divided the city along racial and ethnic lines and the effort to save the building created rifts between the city’s preservation community.

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Figure 3: Parker Center occupies an entire city block bounded by First, Los Angeles, San Pedro and Temple Streets in the Los Angeles civic center area. It replaced a once vibrant mix of houses, businesses, cultural and social institutions. Photo taken at First and San Pedro Streets in 1947. The tower of Los Angeles’ City Hall is visible in the background. Miyatake Family Private Collection, Bronzeville – Little Tokyo, Los Angeles Website. Available http://www.bronzeville-la.com/displayimage.php?pos=-4. Accessed July 19, 2017

Documents prepared by preservation planners articulated the building’s architectural value. They acknowledged Chief Parker’s problematic leadership but did not address the community that had been destroyed for Parker Center to be built. Yet, it was this origin story that ultimately persuaded members of the city council to reject cultural monument status.

City Councilman Jose Huizar, who represents the Little Tokyo district spoke during the final preservation hearing. He suggested that to save Parker Center “dismisses the injustices done to many communities.” Huizar, who as a young man had delivered papers for the Rafu Shimpo Newspaper, specifically connected the history of the Japanese in Los Angeles to his experiences of prejudice as an immigrant, “I did get a bit emotional in the committee when I was talking about the injustices to the Japanese-American community…It just kind of hit me what that would have been like for those residents. And I put that into the context of what is happening today.”[37] The councilman’s testimony was persuasive and his colleagues unanimously denied the motion to designate Parker Center.

With demolition imminent, plans have been made to save a large sculpture that was attached to Parker Center’s exterior façade and to reuse a tile mosaic that decorated the building’s foyer. No plans have yet emerged to memorialize the Chief. As Richard Barron, President of the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission suggested, Parker Center is simply “not an easy building to love.”[38]

 

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Photo by Steve Cohn

Meredith Drake Reitan is an Associate Dean in the Graduate School and Lecturer in the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. Her work has been published in the Journal of Planning History, the Journal of Urban Design, the Journal of Architectural and Planning Research and in Planning Los Angeles, an edited volume for Planners Press. She writes for KCET’s Lost LA and has a blog, called the LAvenuesProject, that uses the thousands of mundane decisions that define the look and feel of LA streets to talk about the long history of the city as a planned environment.

 

Acknowledgements: The author wishes to thank Emily Gersema and Hillary Jenks for their comments and feedback on early drafts of this post.

[1] City of Los Angeles Council. Information Technology and General Services Commission. Motion 2/17/2006

[2] Foote, Kenneth Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy. University of Texas Press 1997, Austin

[3] See for example: Anderton, Francis. “Gail Kennard Makes the Case for Saving Parker Center” KCRW Design and Architecture. March 19, 2015 http://blogs.kcrw.com/dna/gail-kennard-makes-the-case-for-saving-parker-center; Waldie, D.J. “Op-Ed What to do with Parker Center, L.A.’s former police headquarters?” Los Angeles Times April 4, 2015 http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-waldie-save-parker-center-20150405-story.html; “Parker Center’s Possible Demolition Sparks Interest in LA’s Civic Center Master Plan” The Planning Report June 2, 2015 http://www.planningreport.com/2015/06/02/parker-centers-possible-demolition-sparks-interest-las-civic-center-master-plan; Kennard, Gail. “Op-Ed Parker Center isn’t lovable, but it should be preserved” Los Angeles Times December 25, 2016 http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-kennard-preserve-parker-center-20161225-story.html; Waldie, D.J. “What to Do with Parker Center? Preserve? Repurpose? Demolish? KCET Lost LA January 11, 2017 https://www.kcet.org/shows/lost-la/parker-center-preserve-repurpose-demolish

[4] City of Los Angeles. Cultural Heritage Commission. Parker Center, Case Number CHC-2016-3949-HCM and ENV-2016-3950-CE, Final Staff Recommendation Report, Categorical Exemption and Nomination. November 3, 2016. http://planning.lacity.org/StaffRpt/CHC/2016/11-03-2016/5_ParkerCenter_Final.pdf. Accessed July 10, 2017.Pg 16

[5] Cohan, Charles “City to Erect Two Modern Structures: Large Area East of the City Hall Being Cleared for Projects” Los Angeles Times Sep 3, 1950; pg. E1

[6] Wild, Mark. Street Meeting: Multiethnic Neighborhoods in Early Twentieth Century Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2005, Berkeley; Jenks, Hillary. Home Is Little Tokyo”: Race, Community, and Memory in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. Dissertation. University of Southern California, Los Angeles. ProQuest/UMI, 2008.

[7] __________ “Council Fixes Sites of Two New Buildings”, Los Angeles Times. Sep 21, 1948; pg. A7

[8] Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee. Built by Becket. Available: https://www.laconservancy.org/sites/default/files/files/issues/Built%20By%20Becket%20-%20Full%20Brochure%20-%20lowres.pdf

[9] __________ “Police Headquarters” Progressive Architecture. March, 1956

[10] __________ “Police Building Wins Place at N.Y. Exhibit” Los Angeles Times. Sep 27, 1959, pg. F10

[11] City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Committee. Correspondence from Alan Kumamoto 2/17/2017, Chris Komai, 2/7/2017, Nancy Kyoko Oda 2/6/2017, Yukio Kawaratani no date, Joanne Kumamoto 11/28/2016 and Jonathan Takeo Tanaka, 2/7/2017.

[12] City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Management Committee Correspondence from Dean Matsubayashi, 2/7/2017; Pacheco, Antonio. “LA to Heal Planning Scars with Ambitious Civic Center Master Plan” The Architect’s Newspaper April 10, 2017 https://archpaper.com/2017/04/los-angeles-civic-center-master-plan/

[13] Komai, Chris. Statement before the City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Management Committee Meeting. February 7, 2017

[14] Sahara, Kanji Emailed communication to City of Los Angeles, Planning and Land Use Management Committee. February 17, 2017

[15] Tsukada Simonian, Irene. Letter to City of Los Angeles, Cultural Heritage Commission. January 10, 2017

[16] A light rail station has recently been erected in Little Tokyo and another is in the works. Several buildings were demolished to make way for these stations and the area is seeing increased land speculation. See Lue, Ryan. “Can Little Tokyo Survive the Growth of Downtown LA?” Planetizen. April 12, 2012. https://www.planetizen.com/node/56145

[17] City of Los Angeles. Cultural Heritage Commission. Parker Center, Case Number CHC-2016-3949-HCM and ENV-2016-3950-CE, Final Staff Recommendation Report, Categorical Exemption and Nomination. November 3, 2016. http://planning.lacity.org/StaffRpt/CHC/2016/11-03-2016/5_ParkerCenter_Final.pdf. Accessed July 10, 2017.

[18] City of Los Angeles. Cultural Heritage Commission. Parker Center, Case Number CHC-2016-3949-HCM and ENV-2016-3950-CE, Final Staff Recommendation Report, Categorical Exemption and Nomination. November 3, 2016. http://planning.lacity.org/StaffRpt/CHC/2016/11-03-2016/5_ParkerCenter_Final.pdf. Accessed July 10, 2017. Pg. 11; Los Angeles Conservancy. Parker Center/Police Facilities Building, History. https://www.laconservancy.org/locations/parker-centerpolice-facilities-building. Accessed July 11, 2017

[19] City of Los Angeles. Cultural Heritage Commission. Parker Center, Case Number CHC-2016-3949-HCM and ENV-2016-3950-CE, Final Staff Recommendation Report, Categorical Exemption and Nomination. November 3, 2016. http://planning.lacity.org/StaffRpt/CHC/2016/11-03-2016/5_ParkerCenter_Final.pdf. Accessed July 10, 2017.Pg. 22

[20] Hertel, Howard and Berman, Art. “Thousands Mourn at Funeral Rites for Chief Parker” Los Angeles Times; Jul 21, 1966. pg. 1

[21] Webb, Jack. The Badge. Prentice Hall Engelwood Cliffs NJ. 1958

[22] Blanchard, Robert “Democratic Leader Raps Chief Parker” Los Angeles Times May 23, 1956; pg. 1

[23] Buntin, John. “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City” Three Rivers Press 2009, New York

[24] Fogelson, Robert. “Big City Police: An Urban Institute Study” Harvard University Press 1977. Boston, MA;

[25] __________ “FBI Probing L.A. Police Brutality: Grand Jury Attention Indicated; Department Pushes Own Inquiry” Los Angeles Times, Mar 14, 1952; pg. 2

[26] __________ “Chief Parker Hits Brutality Stories: Unsubstantiated Complaints” Los Angeles Times. Feb 28, 1952, pg. 7

[27] __________ “Parker Hits at Charge of Brutality: Prisoner’s Claim Unfounded, Says Chief of Police” Los Angeles Times Jun 24, 1952; pg. 2

[28] __________ “$125,000 Suit Accuses Police of Brutality” Los Angeles Times Jan 28, 1958; pg. 5

[29] __________ “Judge Urges Jury Inquiry on Brutality” Los Angeles Times Mar 13, 1952, pg. 1

[30] __________ “Judge Urges Jury Inquiry on Brutality” Los Angeles Times Mar 13, 1952, pg. 1

[31] __________ “36 L.A. Policemen to Face Discipline for Brutality” Los Angeles Times, Jun 17, 1952; pg. 1

[32] __________ “Police Board Member Flays Parker, Quits” Los Angeles Times Jun 19, 1959, pg. 1

[33] __________ “Chief Parker Hits Brutality Stories: Unsubstantiated Complaints” Los Angeles Times. Feb 28, 1952, pg. 7

[34] Fogelson, Robert. “Big City Police: An Urban Institute Study” Harvard University Press 1977. Boston, MA; Buntin, John. “L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City” Three Rivers Press 2009, New York; Shaw, David. “Chief Parker Molded LAPD Image–Then Came the ’60s” Los Angeles Times May 25, 1992

[35] Mrs. Luther Liebenow. Letter to Mayor Yorty, August 16, 1966; Calvin E. Orr. Letter to Mayor Yorty. July 17, 1965. Los Angeles City Archives and Records Center. Box CC-01-1989, A-1989

[36] Kennard, Gail. “Op-Ed Parker Center isn’t lovable, but it should be preserved” Los Angeles Times 12/25/2016 http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-kennard-preserve-parker-center-20161225-story.html

[37] __________ “LA City Council Dooms Historically Fraught Parker Center” The Hollywood Patch. March 24, 2017 https://patch.com/california/hollywood/la-city-council-dooms-historically-fraught-parker-center; __________ “Huizar Weighs in on Parker Center, Little Tokyo” The Rafu Shimpo February 10, 2017 http://www.rafu.com/2017/02/huizar-weighs-in-on-parker-center/

[38] Kennard, Gail. “Op-Ed Parker Center isn’t lovable, but it should be preserved” Los Angeles Times 12/25/2016 http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-kennard-preserve-parker-center-20161225-story.html

Policing Chinatown: Chinese and Chinese American Adaptation in Progressive Era America

By Matthew J. Guariglia

During the nineteenth century, until the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, it is estimated that Chinese immigrants made their way to the United States by the hundreds of thousands. In 1900, 18 years after the massive restrictions led to a major decline of the U.S. Chinese population, there were around 7,000 Chinese or Chinese-descended residents of Manhattan’s Chinatown. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, which had a population of as high as 25,000 in 1890, the 1900 population now teetered at around 14,000. The decline of Chinese population, however, did not reflect in mounting municipal concerns over the threat of crime and contagion that Chinatowns posed to the sprawling cities around them. During the turn of the century, community desires to curb crime and retain the protections of the police was often complicated by the frequent brutality inflicted by police. Despite the fact that becoming more legible to the state often means becoming more susceptible to coercive mechanisms of power, collaboration between “native” police and majority-white police departments may have seemed to some upwardly and racially-mobile immigrants like an efficient way to provide police protection to a neighborhood without as much overt physical violence, though archives accessible now are filled with evidence to the contrary.

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Other scholars, particularly Nayan Shah, have done excellent work in demonstrating the coercive over-policing done by health inspectors in San Francisco’s Chinatown, but much less has been written on the ways in which municipal police departments struggled to exert control over the language and cultural barriers that seemingly shrouded Chinatown. For both San Francisco and New York City’s police departments, the confusion of white officers policing Chinese populations are well documented in police memoirs and newspaper accounts of the era. Full of vicious stereotypes and unchecked sensationalism, many in police walked Chinatown with little or no desire to understand their surroundings. “There is probably no American who does not regard the Chinese as beings dissimilar to and dissonant with himself; as a caste shut out by its fantastic personality from his sympathies and associations,” wrote former NYPD chief George Walling in 1887, before referring to the language, writing, and religion in the neighborhood as “fantastic and bewildering.”

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Chinatown, N.Y.C. – police and detectives guarding Chinatown, July 6, 1909Chinatown, N.Y.C. – police and detectives guarding Chinatown, July 6, 1909, George Grantham Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

One attempt at extending state control into Chinese neighborhoods came under the 1896 headline “A Queer System of Espionage in the Oriental Quarter of San Francisco.” Organized by the Merchant’s Law and Order League, six companies of Chinese police were organized who, once a week, reported directly to the China’s consul-general in San Francisco. Whenever they deemed that a Chinese San Franciscan had committed a crime severe enough, the Chinese police were dispatched to summon a member of the San Francisco police, and the offender was arrested. “When they first became active agents in the Chinese quarter,” read the San Francisco Examiner, “Chief of Police Crowley was informed of their object and told of the advantages that would accrue to the department through their services. They were consequently provided with a sort of card identification or credentials.” Although it’s unclear how long this arrangement, made between the Chinese community, the Chinese consul-general, and the SFPD, lasted, the police department did not swear in a full officer of Chinese or Chinese-descent until Herbert Lee took the oath in 1957.

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[Store front of Quong Yee Wo & Co., Chinatown, New York City], Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
The New York City Police Department, on the other hand, recruited its first Chinese police officer in 1904. Warren Charles was the son of a Chinese businessman living in Boston and a white mother from Chicago. As an informant, Charles was publicly commended for helping to “clean up Chinatown,” and for braving “hatchetmen” at the behest of the NYPD. Like many multilingual male New Yorkers who served as informants for the police department, Charles was eventually rewarded with an appointment to the force and stationed in Brooklyn. Years later, and to much fanfare, Charles was offered a spot in the Chinatown precinct, an offcer he quickly declined. Unlike other officers eager to work in their own neighborhoods, Charles wanted to escape the spectacle and tokenism he thought would follow a Chinese police officer, in uniform, policing Chinatown. “The police commissioner asked me recently if I would care to serve in Chinatown,” Charles recounted to the press, and “I told him I certainly would not. I had visions right there of camera men, reporters…There, ladies and gentlemen,” he imagined tour guides saying through a megaphone, “you observe the only Chinese policeman on the New York police force. He is working in Chinatown among his own people.” The NYPD would not get its first female Asian-American police officer until Agnes Chan was appointed in 1980.

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The morning market, Chinatown, San Francisco, CA, Arnold Genthe, between 1900 and 1920, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

While more and more scholarship is being produced that reveals the intellectual and physical labor behind U.S. state building and the increase of that state’s capability to exert power during the Progressive era, there is still much work that is yet to be done about how communities, like the residents of New York and San Francisco’s Chinatowns, chose to resist or embrace the privileges and injustices that came along with an increased ability to police the neighborhood.

Matthew Guariglia is the editor of The Metropole’s Disciplining the City series and a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at the University of Connecticut. His most recent work on the dangers of overzealous government surveillance appeared in the Washington Post for its “Made by History” series earlier this summer. 

The Photograph at the top of the page, ” [San Francisco Chinatown, 1895-1900(?): busy scene on commercial street]” can be found in the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress.

Documenting Lynching and its Influence: The Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Clinic at Northeastern University is Doing Just That

jay_ddriskell_1
Jay W. Driskell, Ph.D.

In his 2003 work, The Contradiction of American Capital Punishment, University of California law professor Franklin E. Zimring suggested that a correlation existed between lynchings and capital punishment; states with more of the former participated at higher rates in the latter. Zimring’s statistics, Elaine Cassel argued, “should give pause to anyone who believes that the death penalty is somehow the product of reasoned deliberation, rather than simple mob vengeance.”

The connection between vigilantism, specifically lynching, and state sanctioned executions points to the possibility that America’s judicial and law enforcement infrastructure has internalized a disturbing set of values that have historically been shaped discriminatorily by race and class. Despite this possibility, no real database accounting for the nation’s history of lynching exists. A new a joint project between Northeastern University and its Civil Rights and Restorative Justice clinic is attempting to create a public digital accounting of this history.

Though the project is ongoing, historian and lead researcher Jay W. Driskell believes not only have historians not fully identified the number of lychings that occurred throughout U.S. history but that the practice might have been subsumed and obscured by the nation’s law enforcement structures. The Metropole sat down with Driskell to discuss the role of lynching in our national history, the methods used in documenting this violent past, and what the results of his study might mean in regard to the American legal system.

Can you tell us a little about yourself, how you ended up doing this kind of research? How has it informed your own views on history?

I am a historical consultant and researcher based in Washington D.C. I got involved in this project because my first book was a history of the Atlanta NAACP in its early years, so I was familiar with the organization and its records. This project is being jointly conducted between the Northeastern University School of Law and its Civil Rights and Restorative Justice (CRRJ) clinic. It is the result of a 2007 conference organized by NEU Law Professor Margaret Burnham on cold cases of the 1960s. After that conference, Prof. Burnham and MIT political science professor Melissa Nobles decided to look backwards to the Jim Crow era. The scope of the research covers 13 southern states chronologically from 1930 to 1954 picking up from where Stewart Tolnay and E. M. Beck left off in their widely-used inventory of lynchings. This database is part of each scholar’s respective research on racial violence in the Jim Crow period.

NAACP Box

My part in this project is to uncover every lynching I could discover between 1930 and 1954. We are initially focusing on three main repositories: the NAACP Papers in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress; Department of Justice (DOJ) records located at the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA); and eventually records of the FBI. So far I am deep into the first two; the F.B.I., however, is of course it’s own beast.

What have I learned about history from all this? As somebody who has studied both labor and African American history, I always knew history was really violent. It wasn’t until I looked at the history of lynching in a very concentrated way that I came to reckon with the brutal nature of our nation’s history. Through this research, more than ever I understand what this violence looks like on an individual basis, case after case after case—and I’ve looked at hundreds of cases. When I uncover a new case, I sometimes think about my father and how old he was at the time of this killing. For example, in 1948, a political activist named Robert Mallard was murdered by a mob in Toombs County, GA for driving black voters to the polls in the recent gubernatorial election. In 1948, my dad was 14 years old. This was not that long ago. There have been mobs of thousands of angry white people, attacking a jail and killing an African American man and this happened in our parents’ lifetimes. Some of the perpetrators and participants in these lynch mobs are still alive – and unpunished. The kind of violence that the Ku Klux Klan and others unleashed was really just yesterday, and I am nowhere near certain that it won’t come back. This sort of history makes the world seem very fragile to me.

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Silent protest parade in New York [City] against the East St. Louis riots, 1917, Underwood and Underwood, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
What have you learned about navigating these collections and these archives? Do you have any tips for other historians in regard to archival research?

Let me start with the NAACP. The thing I’ve learned about the NAACP is that when you get to the 1930s and early 1940s, every week they are about to close their doors because it’s run on a shoestring. Yet, there’s this moment where they realize in many parts of the country, they are the only organization doing civil rights work. Sure there’s the International Labor Defense (ILD), the Communist Party, and other groups, but the NAACP is often the only game in town. And this means that everyone is writing the NAACP asking them to take their case. Their resources are stretched so incredibly thin that they can’t do it all. For example, in 1934 NAACP president Walter White read an account of an oil field worker named Ed Lovelace, who was beaten and then burned alive in the town of Wink, TX. White wired the president of the San Antonio branch to investigate. Given that Wink is nearly 400 miles from San Antonio, and it was the site of a violent mob murder of a black man, it would take a tremendous amount of courage for another black man to take this risky journey. Instead, the San Antonio branch looked in the local newspapers for any coverage. Finding none, the case was closed as far as the NAACP was concerned. But, I can’t help but wonder had the local branch made the journey or if the national office had the resources to send an investigator, the murder of Ed Lovelace might well have been counted as one of the fourteen lynchings that the NAACP recorded in 1934.

NAACP 1919 announcement
“N.A.A.C.P. Began Anti-Lynching Fight Says Chas Macfarland”, 1919. NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

After World War II, the organization has almost the opposite problem. The relative prosperity of the war years and the impact of the Great Migration caused the NAACP’s membership to surge. They grow so quickly that the bureaucracy sustaining the organization becomes so complex that things get misfiled, overlooked and lost in the records. So even though the papers look like they are in order – and in many ways they are—there is a lot of chaos in them. If you are patient and willing to do the work, there is a lot of new material to be harvested.

Also, many researchers focus too much on the microfilmed portion of the NAACP papers. What’s available on microfilm is really a small slice of the larger collection.

With that in mind, everything I said about the NAACP goes double for the DOJ at NARA. The DOJ is a vast, vast, agency and NARA is a massive archive. What gets recorded often depended upon how much the secretary or clerk working that day felt like filing. The main thing about working at NARA is that you have to work with the archivists. There is no way to productively navigate NARA’s holdings without the help of these archivists and their highly specialized knowledge of their subject areas. No historian, no matter how smart, will have mastered these records as they have. The NARA archvist I’ve been working with most, Haley Maynard, has been indispensable to the success of this project so far.

NAACP Nov 14 1919 pg 1 lynching report
Report of the Secretary to the Anti-Lynching Committee, November 14, 1919, page 1. NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Why is MIT creating this lynching database?

The CRRJ intends it to become a public history resource.

How does a historian go about gathering and organizing all this data? What has been your method? Did it change as you visited different archives?

When I started this project, I thought the NAACP had done a very good job of reporting on lynchings. In many ways they had. For its time, the organization was very thorough. The problem, however, was that the character of lynching changes over the course of the 1920 and 1930s. In the words of Howard Kester who worked with the NAACP as a white southerner and thus could do undercover investigations of lynchings, it went “underground.” It became less spectacular and ritualistic and, as a result, harder to find because these killings are no longer showing up in press accounts.

So to address this part of my methodology involves recreating the event itself in my head. When you do this it really reveals how lynchings, despite their horrific nature, could be obscured. For example, who are the people who knew the most about this event? First, obviously, the victim, but unless they survived, that voice is forever silenced. The second tier is the perpetrators. When lynching was brazen and public, you can find the perpetrators in the press bragging about it. Sometimes, knowing when they are going to get off, they even sell it to the media as in 1955 when J. W. Milam and Roy Bryant killed Emmett Till and sold their story to Look Magazine. Over the course of the 1920s and 1930s as the NAACP ratchets up public pressure for anti-lynching legislation, lynchers fall silent and stop bragging.

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Report of the Secretary to the Anti-Lynching Committee, November 14, 1919, page 2. NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

This brings us to the third tier of people who are paying relatively close attention to who is being killed and by whom. This comprises the universe of law enforcement officials, at both the local and the federal level. There are two big reasons that law enforcement is paying attention. First, are those cases where law enforcement is either sanctioning or participating in the lynching. Second, they opposed lynching because it interrupted their monopoly on violence. While lynchers were technically breaking the law by committing murder, this act of killing was also a direct challenge to police prerogatives as the only legitimate purveyors of such violence. That’s the police. Notice, we haven’t even gotten to the NAACP yet.

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A tragic and ironic depiction, particularly in light of Dr. Driskell’s early findings,  of the “lynching problem” from 1899; “The Lynching Problem”, Louis Dalrymple, Puck Magazine, 1899. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The fourth tier is the press, often newspaper reporters. Small town reporters were often members of the community committing the lynching and were often members of these lynch mobs – either as participants or observers – so they give very detailed accounts. This is where modern newspaper databases have really helped my research. Chronicling America, ProQuest historical newspapers, and other newspaper digitization projects have really changed the game. For example, the NAACP had to depend on local townspeople sending them clippings; otherwise the organization had no real way to know about lynchings that occurred. So today we have access to identified lynchings that appeared in the local press at the time but the NAACP did not know about because maybe they didn’t have a branch in that town or no one in the town was brave enough to go the post office to mail a clipping to a New York address. You get the idea. This includes the black press too; shockingly the NAACP did not have full access to the black press. In fact the black press was harder to get at since they were often under-capitalized and over-extended, perhaps only issuing one publication a week. Also, even if there were lynchings, the local black press might not have covered it because these presses operated under local conditions and were sometimes unable to report freely.

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Group of African-Americans, marching near the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., to protest the lynching of four African-Americans in Georgia“, 1942,  NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

Then finally, at last you get to the outer tier comprising groups like the Tuskegee Institute and the NAACP, but as you can see they are all very removed from the center of the event. It’s almost like they are the external valence shells on this historical atom. So my goal as a researcher became not to bounce around the outer most orbit of that atom, but rather to determine how to get to the center. The key has turned out to be tier three, the police and law enforcement, because they are the ones, for reasons explained already, paying attention and–crucially–keeping records. If those records wind up in the FBI or DOJ, they are at NARA. That’s the road that will take you to the center of that atom.

In turn, that changed the way I structured the research project. To begin, I went through all the names of lynchings we had already collected. I then made a name database of lynching victims, but as I discovered in the newspapers, they also often listed the names of the perpetrators, more frequently than one would think. In addition, the DOJ often lists cases under the name of the killer, so in some places you only have th name of the killer. You can then use the DOJ litigation index at NARA to find the case number that is linked to that particular killer’s name, which hopefully reveals something about the event that was otherwise lost to time. So far, it has proven pretty fruitful; I’ve even discovered a number of cases the NAACP did not know about.

For example, I found a file in the DOJ records with a 1933 letter from Corinne Banks to FDR. Banks, who lived in Chicago, was the sister of Hirsch Lee, who had been lynched earlier that year. Lee was a 14 year old boy who lived with (and possibly worked for) a white family and had a friendship with a white girl in that family. A rumor spread that it was more than friendship and the family (along with other white men in the area) took Lee to the woods and killed him. They dismembered his body and left it in the woods. The DOJ wrote back to Banks to say they had no jurisdiction in this murder case. There is no indication that the NAACP or any other civil rights group ever found out. What struck me the most was the similarities to the 1955 Emmett Till case. How many Emmett Tills were there?

So in regard to what historians have argued, many historians suggest that lynchings peaked after WWI with another spike during the Great Depression, but then it goes into a long term decline. However, and please keep in mind this is still preliminary and based on this early research, while I think lynching did decline, it did not decline as much as we like to think it did.

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James Weldon Johnson to Walter White regarding a proposed anti-lynching bill, January 24, 1938, NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Now I’m going to expand on this but keep in mind this is mostly just my opinion and not that of the CRRJ. That being said, I am willing to theorize that based on this research there is a baseline level of anti-black violence in US history that has proven very difficult to reduce. Some historians have discussed this, like Michael Pfeifer in his 2006 book, Rough Justice. He theorizes lynching declines because the death penalty takes its place. However, what I am discovering is that maybe the form of this baseline anti-black violence changes from lynchings to police killings. Lynch mobs became less necessary for the maintenance of white supremacy because officers of the law are serving the same function in killing mostly black or Latino men. When confronting black or Latino suspects they use excessive force that leads to death far more often than they do with whites. This was something very clear to those counting lynchings in the 1930s through the 1950s. A 1934 letter from a local NAACP investigator in Alabama to the NAACP describes this relationship:

“If we listed all of the cases where officers go with the intention of killing the man, we would have many more lynchings than any other organization lists. I was told by a teacher in Selma, Ala. that ‘the reason we have no lynchings around here is this: when a Negro gets out of line the officers go and bring him in dead – that is the general rule here’.”

So I am also looking at police brutality files in the NAACP and DOJ records. When the US goes from being predominantly rural to predominantly urban in the 1920s, it changes a great deal about American life particularly in how populations are surveilled and policed. You have the Great Migration bringing African Americans into cities in record numbers but also rural whites moving to urban America (to say nothing of European immigrants who came in the preceding decades). What used to get solved by lynching in the countryside starts getting addressed by professional or semi-professional police forces. Just to complicate this further, I think an older definition of lynching as popular justice, as spectacular, as carnivalesque, and this idea that historians have bracketed its era as ending in 1930, has prevented people from seeing the possible connection between the decline in lynchings and the increase in police killings and brutality. To test that out you would need a reliable adequate number of how many people killed by police over the past century and that work has not been done.

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Even LBJ voted against anti-lynching laws (he did so consistently throughout his congressional career), in the third paragraph Marshall offers commentary on the congressman from Texas; Thurgood Marshall to Walter White, May 1, 1941, NAACP Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Is it safe to assume that the shift from lynchings to police brutality was due to political changes that resulted in anti-lynching campaigns (particularly by the NAACP) and the growing civil rights movement? Would you explain this shift another way or add to it?

Another complexity to think about is when lynchings do begin to decline, the NAACP and others link this decline to their repeated attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation. Though the NAACP never managed to pass an anti-lynching law, there is at least some evidence that keeping the issue of lynching before the public reduced the number of lynchings. In 1938, as Congress is debating an anti-lynching bill, at least four lynchings are averted by sheriffs explaining to the mob that a lynching would only empower the NAACP and other supposed enemies of the South.

But, there’s not enough solid evidence that it was the NAACP’s efforts to pass anti-lynching laws that led to lynching’s decline. It’s very possible that the NAACP increasingly needed to justify why it was prosecuting a fight, which they never win, at least in terms of legislative victories. Since the failure of the Dyer Bill in 1921, all attempts to pass anti-lynching legislation foundered in the face of a southern, white supremacist filibuster. But an anti-lynching law is NAACP President Walter White’s baby. The NAACP has a finite amount of resources and White must show his board of directors and others that there is a reason to pursue this anti-lynching campaign. White’s argument, at the risk of being too simplistic, is that the campaign, even if a failure legislatively, did marginalize lynching as an act such that it declined. White and the NAACP need to generate a narrative of success along the lines of “this hasn’t been a fruitless battle”; using these resources for anti-lynching makes sense particularly when for most of its history, the NAACP is a resource-strapped, zero sum institution. Because the NAACP starts to believe this narrative, I think they wind up undercounting the actual number of lynchings–particularly into the 1930s and 40s.

One last thing to add: I’d caution people who are doing this sort of research that it is emotionally impossible to distance yourself from the topic. You might see hundreds of dead bodies each week on television but it’s not the same. It’s case after case—and some cases go into great, disturbing detail. For instance, in NAACP investigative reports I came across the phrase “beaten to a pulp or jelly” again and again. I realized that this is not just a metaphor, but a literal physical state. I’ve asked some doctors I know if this was possible, and it is. If beaten hard enough, for a long enough time, flesh and blood and bone coagulates into a something like a jelly. That can make it hard to sleep at night. It’s something you can’t just harden yourself to; it takes a heavy emotional and physical toll. So, give yourself time to breathe, and carry on the work.

Jay Driskell is a historian whose work explores the relationship between race, gender and the forging of effective political solidarities in struggles for power within the urbanizing, segregating South. His first book, Schooling Jim Crow: the Fight for Atlanta’s Booker T. Washington High School and the Roots of Black Protest Politics (University Press of Virginia, 2014), traces the changes in black political consciousness that transformed a reactionary politics of respectability into a militant force for change during the fight for black public schools in Atlanta, Georgia.

Driskell also runs a historical consulting business for institutions and individuals who require access to the wealth of historical resources in the DC-area. Major clients have included the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the National Labor College

The South Isn’t Exceptional, the People Are: New Orleans and Prisoner Rights Activism

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Slave prison (Calabozo), New Orleans, Arnold Genthe photographer, between 1920 – 1926, Arnold Genthe Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

New Orleans, and the state of Louisiana more generally, are often held up as the worst examples of policing and criminal justice. It’s where the Angola 3 were incarcerated, alongside Zulu Whitmore, as political prisoners. It’s where Amnesty International has focused much of its anti-carceral state activism. Angola often gets held up as “a modern day slave plantation” and Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) is constantly in the news, most recently for healthcare-related violations. I’m not arguing that these offenses aren’t bad and that they should go unrecognized. But in many ways, all these statistics and examples from Louisiana perpetuate ideas about the backward South, the eternal other of the great United States. For this reason (and many others) many historians of the carceral state have shifted their focus to incarceration and policing in the North and West (Captive Nation by Dan Berger , Heather Thompson’s Blood in the Water, Kali Gross’s two books on Philadelphia). This is laudable and these stories need to be told. But for those of us who want to write the stories of the South, how do we do this without reinforcing false notions of southern exceptionalism and northern innocence? (This is not to say that people are not successfully doing this: David Oshinsky’s Worse than Slavery and Robert Parkinson’s Texas Tough). In “Blinded by the Barbaric South: Prison Horrors, Inmate Abuse, and the Ironic History of American Penal Reform” from the edited edition The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism, Historian Heather Ann Thompson writes “First and foremost, interpretations that emphasize the “exceptional” nature of the southern justice system obscure the extent to which historical penal practices in northern and western states also have been inhumane and deeply racialized. Seeing criminal justice practices in the South as divergent from national standards fundamentally distorts understandings of how race and power played out across the United States after the Civil War.”

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African American prisoners at compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana ( Leadbelly in foreground); Prisoner with guitar, at compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana, Alan Lomax photographer, between 1934 and 1940,  Lomax Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Instead of focusing on the many instances of inhumane treatment and abuse in the Louisiana prison system, especially against people of color, I am focusing on prisoner rights activists inside and outside of prison and their creative and intellectual production, their prisoner-rights organizing, and their spaces of activism. I aim to write about anti-carceral activism in New Orleans without furthering mythical notions about the South as “other.” I hope to avoid making New Orleans out to be the bad guy, when in fact the entirety of the United States is the “bad guy” when it comes to incarceration. From Lead Belly’s performances to lawsuits brought by the ACLU to Robert Hillary King’s memoir From the Bottom of the Heap, New Orleanians have fought incarceration in Louisiana. Though I’m writing a story of activism and agency now, I came to this project because I thought Angola was the “worst prison” and, in the way of an immature, budding historian, I thought something was only worth writing about if it was the worst. Tasked with choosing a research paper topic in my first semester of graduate school, I did exactly what I was told not to: I googled it. I landed on the Wikipedia page for the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which included a short paragraph on the Angola 3. While oft written about in popular culture, there didn’t seem to be much academically written about these men, locked in solitary confinement in the “worst” prison. I expected to write a tale of gross human rights violations and the aberration of the South. Instead I found a story of strength, activism, art, and love in the face of brutality. A story of friendship and organizing and people fighting for the lives and rights of these men at great personal risk. I wrote my thesis on the Angola 3, but as I traversed archives across Louisiana and conducted oral histories with activists across the country, I decided that I would focus on the uncommon strength and organizing of these men and women instead of dismissing an entire region as backwards.

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Angola Landing, State Penitentiary farm, Mississippi River, La., Detroit Publishing Co., Between 1900-1910, Detroit Publishing Co. Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Like many urban historians, sociologists, and other scholars, my focus is on the carceral state. I’m writing about activists, both historical and modern, who have fought for the rights of incarcerated people in New Orleans. In many cases, these activists had little in common beyond the commitment to the rights of the incarcerated. When prisons were being created across the country in the late 19th century, some of these activists fought for the creation of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Others belonged to the NAACP and focused on the racial injustice embedded within Louisiana’s jails and prisons. Still more were involved with Black Power, education reform, and anarchist organizing. My project will follow prisoner rights activism in New Orleans from the late 19th century through to modern day organizing.

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Prison compound no. 1, Angola, Louisiana. Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) in the foreground, Alan Lomax photographer, Lomax Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

How did people of color and other prisoner rights activists use writing, art, and music to express the injustice of the carceral state? How did they carve out spaces, often informal, to fight these injustices politically? These people are exceptional: not because they are Southerners, but because they are fighting, every day, to end incarceration and injustice in Louisiana. By focusing on these activists and their stories, I hope to add nuance to the stories of incarceration in the South. Louisiana has Angola and the OPP, but it also has the longest continuously active chapter of the NAACP, Women with a Vision, NOLA to Angola, and Books to Bars. These organizations, and the activists who make them work remake the story of incarceration in New Orleans every day. It’s a story of injustice, civil rights violations, and abuse, but is also one of art, strength, and organizing.

Holly Genovese is a PhD student and public historian at Temple University interested in Southern history, Intellectual history, Gender, and the Carceral State. She is also a blogger for the Society of U.S. Intellectual History and a contributing editor at Auntie Bellum magazine. You can read her work at https://www.hollygenovese.com/ and follow her on Twitter @HollyEvanMarie.